“Song-birds, piano players, and students”: the evacuation of American citizens from Germany after the declaration of WWI

THE BALLROOM OF THE EMBASSY. THIS WAS AFTERWARD TURNED INTO A WORKROOM FOR THE RELIEF OF AMERICANS IN WAR DAYS
THE BALLROOM OF THE EMBASSY. THIS WAS AFTERWARD TURNED INTO A WORKROOM FOR THE RELIEF OF AMERICANS IN WAR DAYS

Been reading up on POWs during WWI and I came across the memoir of James Gerard, the US ambassador to Germany at the outbreak of the war, who pioneered the inspection of POW camps in Germany. I was fascinated by his description of the evacuation of American citizens from Germany after the start of the war, via special trains to Holland, steerage passages purchased in bulk by the US Embassy, emergency passports, and American Express traveller’s cheques (oh, sorry, traveler’s checks) cashed by special arrangement with German banks. The large part of the work went on in the ballroom of the US embassy in Berlin, administered by a hastily formed relief committee officials’ wives.

WORKING IN THE EMBASSY BALLROOM AT THE OUTBREAK OF HOSTILITIES, AUGUST, 1914
WORKING IN THE EMBASSY BALLROOM AT THE OUTBREAK OF HOSTILITIES, AUGUST, 1914
After the initial rush, the largest headache for the US ambassador was the amount of American luggage left behind, and those citizens who were reluctant to leave Germany. As he observed, “Few of them were business people; there were many song-birds, piano players, and students.”
Justin Bryan Call. Not a "song-bird" but likely a headache for the US ambassador...
Justin Bryan Call. Not a “song-bird” but likely a headache for the US ambassador…
This all brings to mind a famous incident in my own family lore. My great-grandfather, Justin Bryan Call, was in Germany serving a mission for the LDS church when the war broke out. According to my mother’s version (true or untrue?), after he heard the news, he headed to the local mission office only to find it closed. He managed to escape by the skin of his teeth (only to end up back at the Western front in 1918 – but that’s another story). I imagine he was one of the “song-birds” pestering the US ambassador after the bulk of Americans had made their escape.

It makes a better story

My mother, on her deathbed, was pressed by her sister to admit that she had, on occasion, potentially, one might say, exaggerated a little bit. Her answer:

“Of course I exaggerated. It makes a better story.”

Everything I learned as a child I now call into question. It took me years — years — to realise that popping bubble wrap does not, in fact, release toxins into the environment. My mom just wanted to save the bubble wrap to reuse. Fair enough.

Did the cat of my pioneer ancestors really experience immaculate conception after having walked across the plains and found herself the sole cat in Utah? Did she really burrow a tunnel through the snow to carry her kittens, one by one, from the barn into the warm kitchen, from whence each kitten later sold for the price of a horse?

How to get to the bottom of it? No wonder I became a historian.

Tonks and Wrigley

My cats, neither immaculately conceived nor pioneers.